Sunday, September 14, 2008

Bus Stop: A Lion Walks Among Us

A while back I wrote about American television's violent era (1958 to 1962), including what may be the most controversial episode of a series of all time. That was an episode of the TV show Bus Stop called "A Lion Walks Among Us." I recently had the opportunity to watch the episode (for the curious, it wasn't on DVD--it's not available yet).

"A Lion Walks Among Us" caused a furore when it aired on December 3, 1961 on ABC (the American Broadcasting Company). In the end it would be brought up in Congressional hearings on violence on television in 1962 and later that same year in FCC hearings. It is widely believed that the controversy caused by this episode of Bus Stop may well have cost ABC's president, Oliver Treyz, his job.

Today it is often assumed that, even given the furore "A Lion Walks Walks Among Us" caused in late 1961 and early 1962 that it must be tame by today's standards. Having seen the episode, I can say in some ways this is true. It is certainly tamer than some cable series such as Rome, The Sopranos, Dexter, and The Shield. But is it tamer than the average prime time offering on the broadcast networks today? That answer is a bit more complex.

Much of the controversy over "A Lion Walks Among Us" centred on the casting of the villain of the piece, who was played by teen idol Fabian. The episode centred on Fabian as young psychopath Luke Freeman. Freeman gets a ride to Sunrise (the fictional town featured in Bus Stop) from the district attorney's wife (who is an alcoholic), who kicks him out of her car after he makes advances to her. He then robs and kills an elderly grocer before going onto a local teenage hangout, where he pulls a butterfly knife on someone who picks a fight with him. Arrested for the robbery and murder of the grocer, Freeman then burns his own hand to make it look like he had been through a brutal interrogation at the hands of the sheriff's department. His attorney manages to him get him out of the murder rap, much to the lawyer's misfortune. Later, coming to his attorney to borrow money, Freeman then kills and robs him.

As to the violence and sexual content of "A Lion Walks Among Us" that caused such controversy in 1961, in some respects it is milder than what one might see today on network television. The violence is certainly less graphic than the dead bodies often seen on the CSI series today. Like nearly all American TV shows (and movies, for that matter) of the time, violence was never accompanied by blood and gore. As to the sexual content of the episode, it is addressed in such a way that is milder than most sitcoms today, although it must have been shocking in 1961. When the DA's alcoholic wife is placed on the witness stand, Freeman's attorney proceeds to make it sound as if she had not only picked up Freeman for less than virtuous reasons, but that they may have had a sexual encounter. Even in doing so, the defence attorney never uses the word "sex" or anything close to it, implying things more than coming out and stating them. This is a far cry from episodes of Law and Order: Special Victims Unit, in which outright perversions may be described in some detail!

While some of the content of "A Lion Walks Among Us" is tamer than what one would see today, that does not mean that the episode is not intense by today's standards. While the violence is not graphic, there is plenty of it to be seen. At the start of the episode, Freeman not only throws the old grocer over a counter and beats him, but shoots him with his own gun. At the teenage hangout, when an individual picks a fight with him, Freeman pulls a butterfly knife on him. After the district attorney (played by Richard Anderson) finds out it was his wife who picked up Freeman, he throws the young murderer against a wall. One of the most disturbing scenes takes place in Freeman's jail cell, where he uses a cigar to burn his left hand to make it look like the sheriff's department interrogated him brutally. Not once during the scene does Freeman wince or cry out in pain (in fact, he is singing), making it all the more disturbing, even by today's standards. Freeman later uses his butterfly knife to kill his district attorney, stabbing him to death. Not only is there a good deal of violence in this episode of Bus Stop, but it is also unsettling in many ways. Part of this is the fact that Freeman commits these acts of violence so casually, never really losing his temper or feeling any remorse for them. Part of it also due to the fact that, while the violence is not graphic, it is shot to its maximum effect (little wonder--Robert Altman directed the episode. Even by today's standards, the violent content would be strong stuff for network television. Strangely enough, however, there is actually less violence and less brutal violence in "A Lion Walks Among Us" than there was in the average episode of The Untouchables of the time...

While the sexual content of the episode is not shocking today in the way that its violent content is, one can understand why it caused a furore in 1961 and 1962. Some of it hasn't even been mentioned in retrospectives of the episode. When Freeman makes a pass at the DA's wife, it is clear he wants to have sex with her. More surprising is something I don't think I've seen mentioned in discussions about "A Lion Walks Among Us." After he is set free, Freeman goes to a girl he befriended at the teenage hangout to convince her to get money from her parents. Not only does he constantly call her "Lolita (not her name, but an obvious reference to the title character of Vladimir Nabokov's controversial novel of the same name)," but when she says her folks don't have that kind of money, he suggests to her in a whisper how she could get money. The fact that she slaps him shows that he probably suggested she prostitute herself. Perhaps mild compared to what one sees on the CSI and Law and Order series, but certainly shocking for 1961. Beyond the episode's sexual content (shocking for 1961) and intense violence (still shocking today), it also features a rather disturbing and realistic portrayal of alcoholism, with Dianne Foster giving a convincing performance as the DA's alcoholic wife.

What perhaps made "A Lion Walks Among Us" so controversial in its day isn't simply that Fabian, who had a clean cut image at the time, was cast as the young psychopath, but the fact that it did appear on the series Bus Stop. Bus Stop was based on the William Inge play and the 1956 movie of the same name. While both the play and the movie had been comedies, one week the series might feature a comedic episode and the next week a drama. Like The Millionaire, which debuted a few years before it, Bus Stop was a forerunner of shows like Love Boat and Fantasy Island. Each week a new person would come into Sunrise and the episode would focus on them. Early episodes of the show were hardly violent. They had dealt with such things as a wealthy man returning to woo his former girlfriend (now married), a rodeo rider and a singer who want to get married, and a young woman who had never been to Sunrise but could describe the town in detail. Even when the show dealt with crime (such as when a cowboy's son is accused of murder), it contained almost no violence and certainly no real sexual content (not even implied).

What is more, Bus Stop had received its share of critical acclaim. It was produced by Roy Huggins, who created Maverick and later The Fugitive. Episodes were directed by such men as Robert Altman (who directed "A Lion Walks Among Us") and Arthur Hiller. Its writers included Luther Davis and Harry Kleiner (who went on to write the movie Bullitt). Since Bus Stop had never featured intense violence or strong sexual content for the era and since it was regarded as a quality show, most critics were probably not ready for "A Lion Walks Among Us (although, in my opinion, it is a very good TV show episode)."

Indeed, "A Lion Walks Among Us" caused controversy even before it debuted. It was based on the novel The Judgement by Tom Wicker, which dealt with a small Southern town terrorised by a very charismatic, but very evil stranger, and adapted by Elias Kadison. It was originally titled "Told by an Idiot," from the line in Macbeth--"It (life) is a tale; told by an idiot, full of sound and fury; signifying nothing." It was retitled "A Lion Walks Among Us," from the New Testament's I Peter 5:8--"Be sober, be watchful: your adversary the devil, as a roaring lion, walketh about, seeking whom he may devour." Twentieth Century Fox sensed the episode could give them trouble from the beginning. They insisted on cuts to "A Lion Walks Among Us," including the scene in which Freeman throws the elderly grocer over the store counter and beats him. Even with the cuts, the show's sponsors backed away from the episode. One by one, Brown and Williamson Tobacco Co., Johnson and Johnson, and Singer Manufacturing Company withdrew their commercials from "A Lion Walks Among Us." While the episode had been shot early enough that Huggins considered airing "A Lion Walks Among Us" as the first episode of Bus Stop in September, it had to be postponed until new sponsors could be found. For a time, none could be.

Worse yet, when "A Lion Walks Among Us" was previewed for ABC's affiliates, twenty five of them, including ones in major markets such as Atlanta, Baltimore, and Dallas, refused to air it. Of course, by now word had gotten out about the episode, and the National Association of Broadcasters Code Committee tried to view it before it even aired to see if it violated their code. ABC's president Oliver Treyz not only refused to let the NAB Code Committee see "A Lion Walks Among Us," but insisted it would eventually air as planned. Despite the controversy generated before it even aired, "A Lion Walks Among Us" did find an advertiser in the form of Warner Brothers, who provided a few commercials for upcoming movies. Even so, Fox had to air previews for upcoming episodes of Bus Stop to fill out the hour. It was finally scheduled for December 3, 1961.

The episode finally broadcast, the controversy behind "A Lion Walked Among Us," that had been limited so far to the television industry itself, exploded into the public arena. TV critics were almost universal in their condemnation of the episode. Famous critic Jack Gould of The New York Times referred to it as " hour of dark and sordid ugliness." Newsweek called it a "...cynical, perverted, and flacked-up opus." The Los Angeles Times described it as "...a sleazy, nasty, sex-laden, slice-of-sensational trash reminiscent of the worst in drug-store fiction." Many reviews centred on the wholesome teen idol Fabian being cast as as a psychopathic killer. Unfortunately, the reviews caught the attention of Senator Thomas J. Dodd, a conservative Democrat from Connecticut.

Senator Dodd had assumed the title of the Senate's number one crusader against TV violence from Senator Estes Kefauver, who had conducted the first hearings on TV violence in the Fifties. Dodd's first hearings on television violence were held in June and July 1961, attacking such shows as The Untouchables. In January 1962 he held TV violence hearings again, intending to focus firmly on "A Lion Walks Among Us." While Dodd himself had not seen the episode, its reviews had incensed him. Senator John Pastore, a Democrat from Rhode Island, had seen the episode. He said of it, "I looked at it and I haven't felt clean since." During the hearing Dodd interrogated ABC's president, Oliver Treyz about the episode. Oliver Treyz was unrepentant and defended the episode in the name of artistic freedom, although he confessed to the Senator that he would not permit his own children to watch such an episode. Bus Stop, a show previously well received by critics, was now a full fledged controversy.

Sadly, Dodd's hearings would not be the end of it. It was in February 1962 that the Federal Communications Commission finished its investigation of network programming, which it had started that January. It was during the FCC's hearings that Oliver Treyz admitted that airing "A Lion Walks Among Us" was probably a mistake. In March 1962 Oliver Treyz was fired as president of ABC. There has always been little doubt that the whole matter of "A Lion Walks Among Us" was a major factor in his firing. Twentieth Century Fox effectively punished vice president in charge of television production at Twentieth Century Fox and Bus Stop's executive producer Roy Huggins for "A Lion Walks Among Us" by refusing to let him develop any new series. Huggins used the time to return to graduate school to get his Ph.D. He later created The Fugitive in 1963. As to the episode itself, "A Lion Walks Among Us" has never again aired on primetime network television. Presumably, it never will, and a DVD release seems unlikely. Bus Stop itself was cancelled at the end of the season.

Having finally seen "A Lion Walks Among Us," I must say that I can understand why it caused such a controversy in 1961. Contrary to what many might believe today, it is not exactly tame even by modern standards (I think it would get a rating of TV-14 even now). While the sexual content of the episode that stirred things up so in 1961 is now pretty mild, the violence is fairly potent even now. And even after 47 years, it is disturbing to see Fabian, always clean cut, as a psychopath. As to whether "A Lion Walks Among Us" was trash, as critics in 1961 insisted, I do not think it is. I rather suspect they were reacting to what thought was the episode's lurid content instead of its actual quality. The truth is that it is a fairly good TV show episode. Altman's direction is top notch as usual. The cast, including Richard Anderson and Rhodes Reason, are excellent. Surprisingly, Fabian may be the best member of the cast, giving a frighteningly convincing performance as the charming but psychotic Luke Freeman. The episode is also very well written, with plenty of character development and a good pace.

Sadly, as I said, "A Lion Walks Among Us" has never aired again on television. And given the fact that Twentieth Century Fox treated it as an embarrassment after it aired and that it is still talked about even today, I doubt it will even air on Trio (known for airing long lost TV shows). A DVD release is probably an even more remote possibility. Even given the fact that the episode is of historical interest for the controversy it caused and the fact that Robert Altman directed it, except for the few copies that exist out there today in the hands of collectors, I doubt it will ever see the light of day again. This is sad, as while "A Lion Walks Among Us" was condemned as trash in 1961, it is actually a very well done TV series episode that deserves to be seen again.


Toby O'B said...

Hey, Merc!

Not sure where/how you saw this, but it's a show I've always been intrigued by since first seeing this episode mentioned in one of my old TV history books.

I'll have to check and see if it's available at the Paley Centre here in NYC....

Terence Towles Canote said...

It is available at the Paley Center--part of their First Amendment Collection.

Jim Marquis said...

Wow, really interesting stuff. I'd never heard of that before.

Dale said...

Wasn't Fabian in a similar BUS STOP called "I Kiss Your Shadow?"

ericpaddon said...

No, "I Kiss Your Shadow" was the last episode of the series which departed from the normal format big-time by giving us a supernatural episode straight out of shows like "Thriller" in which George Grizzard is terrorized by the ghost of his possessive wife.

I have just watched "A Lion Walks Among Us" and it is indeed shocking not just in terms of the content, but in all honesty this was not the first time "Bus Stop" had given us a tale of a chilling murderer. Just a few episodes before this one, "The Glass Jungle" gave us Nehemiah Persoff as a meek doctor who kills a woman that he says to the sheriff (Lloyd Nolan, playing the superior to series regular Rhodes Reason) was blackmailing him and so Nolan tries to help Persoff cover this up because he's a man of good character. But then in the final minutes, we get a twist of seeing Persoff commit a second murder that reveals he is in fact a psychopath. If anything, the fact that "Glass Jungle" didn't cause an uproar even though there is no moral difference between the two characters and the crimes they commit, is a testament to how the uproar over "Lion" was clearly more centered on the brutal frank sexual discussions of the time and the implied violence shown on camera rather than the story content itself.